Unstuck in time

SA Guide: Presidential Trail, Horsethief Lake Trail, Cliff Palace, Soda Canyon Overlooks, Square Tower House, Petroglyph Point Trail, Balcony House, Long House

So, we're off on the beginning of a swing through the west for our annual late-summer getaway, and we find ourselves in Keystone, South Dakota: just down the hill from Mt. Rushmore National Memorial. It was never a huge ambition of ours to go see the Big Heads. But we had come over the Rockies to visit our daughter in Denver - the plan being to then head up into the hinterlands of Wyoming to watch the 2017 total solar eclipse. At that point, since we would be so close anyway, we figured why not check out the Black Hills as well as the monument. Heck, we'd seen National Treasure II, and that made it seem kind of cool (though I was pretty sure there was no huge lake right behind those sculptures).

Well, we never made it to totality. In fact the best we could do was an hour north of Denver for a 93% show, after which we asked each other, "Do you still want to go?" The answer ended up being a rather uninspiring, "Ah what the hell. We've got a hotel booked, why not check it out?"

That's how we found ourselves driving up into the Rushmore Memorial section of the Black Hills to visit George, Thomas, Teddy and Abe. And truth to tell, our worries (which included encountering hordes of MAGA t-shirts and baseball caps), though not entirely unfounded, were not fulfilled to the degree it dampened an excellent time. The monument, while being strangely smaller than I expected, was an interesting - and surprisingly self-aware - experience. The park naturally concentrates heavily on the design and sculpting of these huge likenesses, but it does not shy away from some of the less savory issues involved in its history. Two examples: 1) the fact that the land, which had been deeded to Native American tribes, was summarily taken back when someone thought, "Hey, this looks like a good place for some 60 foot high heads!", and 2) contemporary recognition of the fact that this installation must, by any environmental measure, be considered a scar on the pristine landscape.

The park service took its lumps on these, and other, concerns, but in the end never deviated from a devoted pride in the final product. I had to respect this, even if my perspective diverged somewhat.

It was all quite interesting, and the site very well developed to show off the grandeur of the sculpture. But the thing I found most interesting was a display in the sculptor's studio. Here I discovered something of which I had been previously unaware; directly behind the huge heads there is a ravine, accessed only by hiking through the woods and climbing some rock stairs, where something called the Hall of Records has been blasted out of the solid rock. This was initiated at the time of the monument's construction, but only later in the 20th century finally received a deposit of information. No public access is granted to this location, as it is intended to be a kind of time-capsule. The sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, was concerned that thousands of years hence the monument would still stand, but there might be nothing of our current civilization to inform viewers of its meaning and import. Thus, Borglum, a fervent patriot, pressed for the creation of a vault in the rocks that would house a laudatory history of America.

Besides prompting a not-so-far-removed-from-National-Treasure daydream about attempting to get up to the Hall to surreptitiously check it out, this concept, for me, provided a contemplative way to experience the monument itself. In trying to anticipate the sculptor's vision, to come unstuck in time as it were, I found myself walking around, looking at the exhibits and wondering just what, of our current era, could, or even should, survive the millennia. This reverie led me to think of the accomplishments of the four big-headed dudes in a rather different fashion than simply listing their deeds (some of which were less than laudable). It was a way for people like me who tend toward the less intense end of the nationalistic spectrum to enter the world of Mt. Rushmore and come away with something deeper than waving a flag.

To be honest, this approach resulted in no profound insights. But it was useful to imagine what I'd want a ten-millennia-removed observer to take away from the monument. I'd like to think that something very much centered on America's ideals: the fundamental freedoms these great presidents stood for,  rather than its history: the things they (we) and others did, will be what lives on to inform some far-flung future.

In the end, we quite enjoyed our time at Mt. Rushmore, and hope to someday return to the amazing scenery of the Black Hills, of which we got to see far too little.


After spending some more time in Denver, we headed to the southwest corner of Colorado to visit a bucket list spot - Mesa Verde National Park. I had long wanted to see the elaborate and fascinating cliff dwellings that ancient Puebloan Native American tribes had built nearly a thousand years ago, and as our itinerary was to take us from Denver to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, this was a perfect time to camp on the beautiful 7000'-elevation mesas and indulge in a bit of historical anthropology - if at a tightly controlled distance.

Nearly 600 of these stone block alcove communities have been found tucked into the limestone cliffs that rim the mesas of this region. There is all kinds of speculation regarding the reasons the area's residents of thousand years past decided to go to the great trouble of carrying building materials over the cliff edges and down into these often huge alcoves in order to build their homes and gathering places. Suggested explanations range from defensible spaces (now considered unlikely), to proximity to water sources (also now considered less likely), to simple resource management. This last idea seems to make the most sense. There was a greater population concentration in this part of the country around 800 years ago than there is even today, and the mesa tops were all in use for agriculture. 

Access to the ruins (some of which are remarkably intact) is mostly limited to ranger-led tours, and during these extremely well-organized and conducted tours we were encouraged to take a mental trip back eight or nine centuries (time to come unstuck again) and imagine ourselves in that long-ago environment, under those conditions, with those technological limitations. Why, each ranger asked, would the ancient Puebloans have built these amazing places in such apparently difficult locations. But even more importantly; why they would have left them so abruptly - often leaving valuables and useful items lying about?

It was a puzzle we pondered for the several tours and self-guided hikes that filled most of our two days at Mesa Verde. And somewhat dramatically, what seemed like the best, if a bit mundane, answer was broached by yet another excellent ranger on our last tour before leaving the park. As we stood in the huge alcove of Long House (the second largest cliff dwelling in the word) looking out over the vast canyon, our guide went over some of the current theories about the mysterious evacuation. Then he deftly brought us back to earth with an entirely rational point about population and resources. This part of the country was very productive, and more and more people were moving in. The mesas, which had once been forested and full of game, were now treeless and entirely used for farming. Resources were becoming strained, and eventually there was simply too much stress on a region that could not support such increased numbers. Of all the influences that could account for changing fortunes on a scale as grand as that of civilizations, it was the most prosaic of all - not enough food and water - that apparently did the trick.


Both Mt. Rushmore and Mesa Verde were, for us, experiences that leave you feeling as if you've stretched your vision just a bit...sort of glimpsed a part of the big picture that had previously eluded you. At Mt. Rushmore it was unexpected and welcome. At Mesa Verde it was omnipresent and enlightening. And both places drew upon the awesome natural beauty of the surrounding environment to ground these contemplations in the fundamental constancy of the land, and its changes through deep time.

So it goes...

(Apologies to Kurt Vonnegut Jr.)

Info: Presidential / Nature Trail: Distance - 0.8 miles, Elevation range - 152', Rating - Easy

Horsethief Lake Trail: Distance - 3.5 miles, Elevation range - 597', Rating - Easy-Moderate

Cliff Palace: Distance - 0.5 miles, Rating - Easy

Soda Canyon Overlooks: Distance - 1.4 miles, Elevation gain - 50', Rating - Easy

Square Tower House Overlook: Distance - 0.3 miles, Rating - Easy

Petroglyph Point Trail: Distance - 3.3 miles, Elevation gain - 237', Rating - Moderate

Balcony House: Distance - 0.4 miles, Rating - Easy

Long House: Distance - 3.4 miles, Elevation gain - 287', Rating - Easy-Moderate

More photos:

  • 01 Entrance view
  • 02 Night ceremony
  • 03 Morefield campground flowers
  • 04 Campground sunset
  • 05 Cliff Palace
  • 06 Cliff Palace two
  • 07 Cliff Palace three
  • 08 Square Tower House
  • 09 Interpretive sign
  • 10 Butterfly
  • 11 Spruce Tree House
  • 12 Balcony House
  • 13 Badger House trail
  • 14 Long House
  • 15 Long House two
  • 16 Canyon view
Even more photos: Black Hills, Mt. Rushmore, Morefield campground, Cliff Palace, Soda Canyon, Wetherill Mesa  



All photos and video by Laura or Bob Camp unless otherwise indicated. Use without permission is not cool.